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Potential sites for conference center stir debate

Potential sites for conference center stir debate

March 3rd, 2013 in News

Civic leaders have been haggling for years over what makes the best location for a new conference center, but the debate is far from settled.

As of this week, three locations - a West McCarty Street site, the Capital Mall and the Missouri State Penitentiary - are on the table, after the Jefferson City Council agreed to allow three developers' proposals to advance to the next stage of discussion.

Some leaders prefer the West McCarty Street spot for its easy access to the Capitol; others see the Missouri State Penitentiary as the go-to site for its sweeping vistas of the Missouri River. Relatively new to the discussion is the Capital Mall, which some observers are already saying offers good highway access and plenty of parking.

The three development groups that made the cut are: the Ehrhardt Hospitality Group, based in Hannibal; Drury Development Company, based in St. Louis; and Farmer Holding Company, based in Jefferson City.

Ehrhardt expressed a preference to build on West McCarty Street; Drury left their options open to any site deemed suitable by the city. The Ehrhardt and Drury proposals were moved forward to Phase 2 with unanimous votes. The Farmer Holding Company's proposal to locate the conference center at the Capital Mall, which it owns, did not receive unanimous support. Three council members - Carrie Carroll, Ralph Bray and Larry Henry - voted against the Farmer Holding Company's plan. Carroll, who represents the 4th Ward, said, though the West McCarty location is acceptable, her No. 1 choice is the Missouri State Penitentiary site. "It's such a gem," she said. "It has such uniqueness to it. It's an attraction in itself."

It's been nearly a decade since the building was decommissioned, but only a few ideas out of the dozens originally envisioned for the site have come to fruition. But Carroll believes the site is ripe for development. "There's a readiness now," she argued. "Tours of the prison have grown exponentially. We have seen that people want to go there."

Carroll said: "MSP offers everything we ask for, plus room for expansion. It has the best views in all of Jefferson City. And it's our chance to make that site into something great for the whole state."

Although she said many people do not want the conference center project conflated with the multipurpose gymnasium the city's Parks and Recreation Commission hopes to build, she said the two buildings would be well situated adjacent to one another. She envisions a project where security, groundskeeping and parking expenses could be shared.

"Across the nation, conference centers tend to each have their own niche. Our niche is state government, but it could also be sports," Carroll said.

Her colleague on the council, Bray, is less certain the MSP site is ready.

"It's a nice attraction and a nice site. But it's not feasible right now because of the low level of development," he said.

Bray said Missouri State Penitentiary Redevelopment Commission is making progress developing the site, but he termed that development "slow and methodical." He noted when the Transform Jefferson City half-cent sales tax proposal- which would have provided funds for infrastructure - failed a year ago at the polls, it further retarded the site's development.

"I don't know if the prison site can be justified, economically, right now," Bray said.

Bray is a proponent of the block of state-owned land available along West McCarty Street. He said the "importance of convenience" shouldn't be underestimated.

"If we have a conference center that brings people into our community where they can park their cars and explore as pedestrians. Gosh, that's the ticket," Bray said.

He also said Jefferson City's downtown is "loaded with state associations" who likely will be prime uses of the conference center property.

Bray said it might have been true at one time that Jefferson City's sidewalks roll up at 5 p.m. "But it's a busy place after dark," he said.

Bray - who also has worked as a part-time event promoter in his past - believes the Capitol Plaza Hotel, while it has served its purpose, is not large enough to serve crowds larger than 800 people.

Former Mayor John Landwehr has a firm conviction that any plan which depends on shuttles should be rejected outright.

"All objective data shows that our target guests are the hundreds of statewide associations and public employee groups that now cannot meet in Jefferson City because we have no facility big enough to accomodate them," Landwehr said. "The graduations, boat shows and music concerts will fill in the rest of the schedule."

He added: "City leaders should understand the one way for the Jefferson City project to fall on its face is to locate it where meeting planners are told that important state offices, hotel rooms and other amenities will be available only by ... shuttle. The City Council should not just look at the economics of putting a box on a lot and declaring victory."

Third Ward Councilman Bob Scrivner said he is trying to remain neutral regarding all three developers' proposals. But he noted, to many observers, the mall site makes sense. "It's big and the parking is there," he said.

"My preference is we find a good, financially sound organization that will come in and build a good, viable hotel property and conference center that they can support, and everybody comes out a winner," Scrivner said.